They had their exits and entrances

2009-01-03 00:00

Anew year, a clean slate. However psychologically useful it might be to nurse this illusion, such existential simplicity is, alas, not possible. What happened before shapes that which follows.

The year saw the resignation of Cuba’s Fidel Castro because of illness, of Israel’s Ehud Olmert and Ireland’s Bertie Ahern because of corruption claims, of Japan’s Yasuo Fukuda because of incompetence, of Pakistani’s Pervez Musharraf to avoid impeachment, and of South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki because his party rivals couldn’t abide his face.

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, the one who everyone hoped would resign, did not. Despite his losing an election that he tried his best to rig, the only African countries that have spoken out against Mugabe’s calamitous and despotic rule are Kenya, Zambia and Botswana. It is in the management of the Zimbabwe crisis that one best sees the hubris of Mbeki’s presidency. It requires no apology to yet again quote presidential adviser Tony Heard, because it illustrates so clearly the twin strands of delusion and sycophancy that characterised Mbeki’s administration.

Even before Zimbabwe’s “free and fair” election results were released, Heard declared that Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy and “deft statesmanship” had been vindicated and presidential change was “nigh”. “So it is time to doff our hats to the person who helped lead an undramatic initiative with such a dramatic outcome: Thabo Mbeki,” wrote Heard.

Since then the power-sharing deal negotiated by Mbeki remains on ice. Mugabe continues to kidnap, murder and imprison his political opponents, the country is stalked by starvation and malnutrition, inflation is astronomical, and cholera has killed thousands. Deft statesmanship and a dramatic outcome, indeed.

The past year was the year of substitute leadership. In Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari was elected president in place of his assassinated wife, Benazir Bhutto. In Russia, Vladimir Putin skirted the constitutional prohibition on a presidential third term by becoming the prime ministerial power behind the new president, Dmitri Medvedev.

It was the kind of cheeky solution that Mbeki had hoped to engineer but failed to do. Instead it was African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma who pulled it off. Because Zuma resigned from Parliament when accused of corruption, he has as seat-warmer caretaker president Kgalema Motlanthe, who is supposed to step aside with good grace in a few months’ time.

Astonishingly, Zuma seems set to become the third president of the democratic republic, despite the miasma of corruption that hangs about him. Given that the prospect of a Zuma presidency has already split the ANC, it might well be a one-term phenomenon. If that is how things transpire, South Africans may be getting off comparatively lightly. Despite a similar cloud of corruption and constitutional chicanery, Silvio Berlusconi was in April elected prime minister of Italy.

For the third time, nogal. Proof, if any were needed, that we are not unique in our idiosyncratic interpretation of democracy and good governance.

Among all these tawdry comings and goings, there was one hopeful entrance. Although it will be impossible to meet the exaggerated expectations held of him, Barack Obama, president-elect of the United States, at least articulated a vision.

“To all those watching from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world — our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared and a new era of American leadership is at hand.

“This is our time … to reaffirm that fundamental truth that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: ‘Yes we can’.”

Happy New Year.

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